Director Seth Gordon made a big splash in 2007 with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Since its release he has made three more features, Four Christmases, Horrible Bosses, and Identity Thief. An obvious tie between all these films, as well as the Academy Award-winning doc he produced, Undefeated, is a crowd-pleasing quality.
Gordon wants to appeal to anyone he can with his studio comedies, and with his newest movie, Identity Thief, he faced his greatest challenge in doing so. Anyone can jump onboard with the wish-fulfillment of killing their boss, but can millions of people do the same for a criminal who ruins people’s lives? As long as that criminal is Melissa McCarthy, as Gordon tells us, they can.
Here’s what else Gordon had to say about Identity Thief:
When you came onboard Diana was originally written as a man, but the project became tailored for Melissa McCarthy. Did you know you needed that likable enough of a presence to make an audience get behind that character more?
I hadn’t realized in advance… If you think about other films in this world – Planes, Trains, & Automobiles or Due Date – that antagonist character is always incredibly likable. Midnight Run has an aspect of that too, but Melissa takes it to another level with this wicked innocence. She does terrible things, but you root for her.
With the things you see her do, this could have made for a very mean-spirited movie, which was almost the case with Horrible Bosses, as well. Does that sense of humor just not appeal to you?
Yeah, I try to stay away from being super mean-spirited. I don’t know what good that does for folks. For me, creating situations for people to do terrible things but you still like them feels the most real. In The King of Kong we had a wonderful antagonist in the form of Billy Mitchell, but he wasn’t mean-spirited. In his mind and the mind of his acolytes, he was the hero. It shouldn’t be mean-spirited, because you’d be telling your antagonist he’s actively wrong, while he feels completely justified in what he’s been doing.
Editing always plays a part in finding that tone. Has that been your experience so far?
Oh, massive. It’s just essential. For this one, Jason Bateman‘s setup is pretty elaborate and almost dramatic, but we needed to announce that the film was a comedy. Like, we needed to have the scene with Melissa and the chandelier early on. You’re right, it’s completely editorial. It says so much about how we’re treating comedy and how seriously we’re telling people to take the movie. This tone was tricky to find since there is action and drama in the last half, but first and foremost it is a comedy. Finding that balance was important and the whole focus in our editorial process.
Since you started off in editing, do you have a pretty firm handle on that now?
Yeah, editing is how I started. Working in documentaries requires you to edit, especially if you have no budget. Editing is the best directorial training. You always find yourself over a bag of tapes that don’t necessarily work [Laughs]. You need a firm handle of that.
Even with having more tools at your disposal nowadays, does it feel much different than editing docs in your apartment?
You know, at the end of the day, it does feel the same. I try to stay very hands on and fresh in the editing process. Peter Teschner edited this movie and Horrible Bosses, and he’s been great letting me stay hands on. There are some directors who just point and say what to do, but I try to work with him together much more actively. I think that works well for us.
With this and Horrible Bosses, you’ve found two big jokes when it comes to production design. I still remember Bobby’s apartment from Bosses and you made something even more outlandish with Diana’s house.
That house we made for her was Shepherd Frankel, who did a tour de force in set direction. That was a regular home and we brought all that stuff in. When we were in there, that’s when Jason had the idea of hitting her with the guitar. I’ve always loved the idea of people who have guitars but don’t know how to play them. I feel like I have a few friends like that, but she has that problem to the extreme with all these instruments [Laughs]. That’s what led to the idea of Jason hitting her with the guitar, which made for a big laugh.
When do you know a dynamic is going to work for a film? Can you know on set or is it something you can’t see until later on?
From the moment they started doing scenes together I started cracking up. I had to move further and further away from set. There’s a bunch of takes where you could hear me wheezing, and that’s how I know. They did so many awesome takes that couldn’t be in the movie, but those will make the DVD.
Are you doing an unrated version?
Yeah, there will be extended, unrated, or whatever cut.
What are your thoughts on unrated versions? There’s the stigma that they hurt the movie.
I hear ya. That’s just something they want to do nowadays, and I have that extended version for this. In the case of our movie, I think some of the scenes we had to let go were really strong. Because of my editorial background I may lean on the side of being too swift and cut out maybe a little too much, so there are some good gems we get to restore here. I totally hear you, though. Sometimes the “extended” version features stuff that should’ve stayed on the floor.
Do you make sure to oversee the cutting of an extended version?
Yeah, we definitely tried with this. There’s an extended cut of Horrible Bosses, which works, but I felt like… I learned from that process if we planned for the extended cut while making the main cut it would help us. I try to think of it as fans of the movie getting that little bit more.
Bringing it back to the editing process, for Bosses you stripped down the first act because people could already relate to that idea of a bad boss. For this, did you have to do the opposite?
It was actually a similar process. Basically, Melissa played the character in such a vulnerable and accessible way, that we had more scenes earlier on demonstrating why you should root for her, but they just weren’t necessary. You automatically root for her so quickly. It was a similar thing with Bosses where it wasn’t very hard to get people onboard with the idea of killing your boss [Laughs]. We didn’t need to prove how bad those bosses were, because people were ready to buy into it.
What are your thoughts on test screenings?
I love testing. There’s the movie you intend to make, and you find out that certain assumptions you made of what would work or what was obvious weren’t. For me, I’m trying to make a movie that people will enjoy and makes sense for everyone. The process is very revealing of how to get closer to the script and the movie in general. You know, my folks are social scientists, so surveying and seeing how a group responds to the work is not a scary thing for me at all.
Jay Roach said test screenings are more needed for comedy, because by the 300th time a director has heard a joke, they may not find it funny like an audience would.
Oh, absolutely. Once you get 300 or 400 people together, they can’t lie. You learn the truth there immediately.
If a joke doesn’t get a laugh, do you immediately think there’s a problem?
No, that’s fine. There’s some crowds that get certain jokes and there’s some crowds that don’t. Like, The Fountainhead joke in the Jon Favreau scene will play huge for certain audiences, but for others it’ll just fly by. I love that there’s some layers. For some folks, that joke hits close to him.
Identity Thief is now in theaters.